Our Canada Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Canada or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
The world's second largest country isn't short of charms, quirks and attractions, from vast painterly landscapes to ice rink action, shining cosmo-capitals to dirt-lined and thrilling rodeos. Big, boisterous, beautiful and surprisingly hard to define, Canada is a traveller's dream.
Culturally, Canada is a cross-stitch of a thousand threads, combining indigenous traditions and a mix of European and Asian and other immigrant influences. City high streets boast a wonderful array of cafés, shops and cuisines and French-speaking Quebec is one of the world's finest examples of preservation of a culture. Canada is tolerant, inviting and, according to many, friendlier than its flashy neighbour.
The country has produced some some of pop culture's best-loved stars, from cult-favourite Leslie Nielsen to revered painter Kenojuak Ashevak, the Group of Seven to Quebec's world-famous Cirque de Soleil. Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell all hail from Canada, as does the world's favourite baby faced pop star, Justin Bieber. You win some, you lose some.
Canada's greatest stars however are the phenomenal and endless wild landscapes, so varied in topography and rich in animal life. The nation is literally crammed full of lakes, great and small, and boasts mountain ranges, frozen tundra and forests, home to birds and bees, bears and bison. Head into the wilderness, and you'd be unlucky not to spot a black bear, a moose or beaver. You might even hear Gray Wolves howling in the distance.
Culture & etiquette
Canadians are friendly, engaging and extrovert, and on occasion, quietly eccentric. They pride themselves on being tolerant, approachable and as amiable as possible. It's an impression that has been enshrined by pop culture south of the border - an unashamedly cheery, helpful to a fault Mountie is a common feature of American cartoons. In return, many Canadians are keen to stress to the world that they are not American, which is why Canadian tourists often go about with the Maple Leaf flag stamped to their backpacks.
Canadians are outdoorsy, indulging in outdoor sports during weekends and holidays, including canoeing, sailing or skiing. Of course, with a country of such vast size and huge diversity of people, there are interesting disparities in culture, itself an important part of the Canadian identity as a whole. But Canadians are proud of their nation and the Canadian flag is often seen hanging on private porches or flagpoles.
Greetings vary according to place, with a kiss on both cheeks in Quebec and a handshake accepted elsewhere.
Two distinctive Canadian drinks are ice wine and ice cider, which are made from the frozen juice of grapes and apples respectively. Canadian wine is developing a good reputation, though the country produces less than 0.5% of the world's wine. The two largest wine-producing regions are the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. Quebec also produces some wines, but harsher climates limit production.
Most beer sold in bars is weak, watery larger which is only really enjoyable if its ice cold. Quality craft beers from small breweries are increasingly popular and some fantastic pale ales, like Red Racer, or rye beers, like award-winning Cameron's rye beer, are available across the country.
Canadian whiskies are generally lighter and smoother than those from the US or Europe. For something with more of a punch, try Newfoundland Screech, a dark rum.
Coffee is ever popular, especially among Quebecois. It's largely about big mugs of mass produced Tim Hortons/Starbucks coffee, but the big cities, especially Montreal and Vancouver host some splendid independent coffee shops.
January - Jasper in January
February - Winterlude, Ottawa
April - Calgary International Spoken Word Festival
May - Banff Festival of the Arts
June - Pride Week, Toronto, one of the world's largest
June/July - Montreal International Jazz Festival
July - Calgary Stampede, the world's largest rodeo held over 10 days
August - Edmonton Folk Music Festival
September - Toronto International Film Festival
October - Okanagan Wine Festival
November - Winter Festival of Lights, Niagara Falls
December - Christmas Carol Ships Parade, Vancouver
Food & drink
It's possible to eat every kind of cuisine in Canada, European and ethnic dishes are served in every state. Regional and traditional cooking still survives and thrives though, based as it is on excellent local produce, from seafood and game to wild berries and mushrooms.
Each region has its own specialities. Quebec is famous for fine French cuisine, but the state's signature dish is probably poutine, a heap of chips and cheese drenched in gravy, much more delicious than it sounds (and looks). It's available everywhere, from roadside trucks to up-market restaurants, where they might add foie gras or lobster to the traditional version. The French art of creating excellent cheese is alive and well here, with dozens of small-scale producers creating hundreds of varieties. Creton, more like rillettes than paté, is also worth trying - succulent pork seasoned with onions, garlic, nutmeg, cloves and garlic, often served for breakfast. Tourtiere is another French-Canadian favourite, a traditional meat pie made with ground beef and spices. Steak and frites is served all over Quebec (and with chips throughout Canada - the best beef coming from Alberta, the country's cattle capital).
As you'd expect, the Maritimes - Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island - are awash with excellent seafood. Oysters, lobsters, clams and scallops feature on many menus, sometimes in stews or chowders, sometimes just piled up on platters, and in the case of lobsters, stuffed into soft white rolls with lashings of mayonnaise. The mussels cultured in the clean cold waters off Prince Edward Island are notably good too, as are the potatoes grown in the island's sandy soil. Blueberries thrive on Nova Scotia, turning up in salsas and drinks, as well as numerous puddings including blueberry grunt, a moreish mixture of the berries and soft dumplings. The island is also well known for its take on the doner kebab, the Nova Scotian donair.
Seafood is also a predominant part of the offerings in the far north and in the west, with cod, salmon, haddock and king crabs all popular. Spot prawns are the largest of seven species found off the coast of British Columbia, and are succulent and sweet, and the Pacific oysters are as good as those served up in the Maritime states. This is probably where salmon jerky - the dried smoked salmon popular throughout the country - originates.
Further north, in Manitoba and Northern Saskatchewan, fish such as goldeye, Artic char, trout, northern pike and perch are commonly consumed, as are Saskatoon berries and pemmican, a curious combination of berries, dried meat and fat. There are First Nation restaurants to be found, notably in Saskatchewan, where venison from elk, moose, deer and caribou might be served. Wild game is not only an important part of First Nation culinary tradition, it is consumed across the country, mostly in the vast rural reaches.
Game is an especial favourite in Labrador, with caribou, moose, bear and rabbit, often served in delicious ways - braised rabbit pie, or caribou with loganberry sauce. Here's where you'll find mooseburgers, and Newfoundland is where you'll find seal flipper pie, which we're told tastes much better than it sounds.
There are plenty of less esoteric options though. As you'd expect, Newfoundland serves up an abundance of fresh seafood - mussels, scallops, shrimp, salmon, trout - and of course, cod, though this is not quite as plentiful as it used to be. Cod tongue - sautéed as a rule - is a local favourite, as is fish and chips and the rib-sticking Jigg's dinner. A Sunday lunch staple in both Newfoundland and Labrador, and named after a comic strip character, this is the hefty result of boiling salt beef or salt beef ribs with potatoes, carrots, cabbage, turnip and turnip greens. Pease pudding and figgy duff (now made with raisins and not figs) are cooked in the same broth at the same time, in muslin bags. It's as substantial as the Lumberjack's breakfast so loved all over Canada - three or more eggs, ham, bacon and sausages, and a pile of pancakes. And pancakes of course, mean maple syrup in many places, but most so in Canada. If one single food can be said to reflect the country's cuisine, it must be this. There's a maple leaf on the flag after all.
Canada is the world's second largest country. Covering an area of 9,984,670sq km, it is 40 times larger than Britain, but has a population of 35.1 million, somewhat smaller than the population of the UK. Canada shares over 8,800km of border with the US, including 2,477km with Alaska. 90 per cent of the population lives within 150km of the US border.
The highest point is the summit of Mount Logan, which reaches 5,959m in the Yukon's Kluane National Park. Canada has an estimated three million lakes, more than all the other countries of the world combined. Of these, the largest is Lake Superior, which is also the world's third largest lake.
Many of the large urban centres and tourists traps are easy to reach by public transport, but Canada is huge, so getting to those places even slightly off the well-trampled route can be a bit of logistical headache.
For obvious reasons therefore, many travellers opt to hire a car. Fuel is cheap compared to British prices and any UK national over 21 with a full UK driving license is allowed to drive in Canada. Some rental companies will require customers to have a credit card, so do a bit of research before deciding on a company to go with. The cheapest rental options are usually found using a fly and drive option - speak to a Wexas Travel consultant about this. The road network is excellent and well maintained, though rural roads may require a 4x4, especially during the wetter seasons. Distances are vast, so consider taking a domestic flight - the network is extensive, though relatively expensive - if your itinerary includes places spaced far apart from one another. Bus travel is comparatively cheap and long distance Greyhound buses service many urban centres.
Surprisingly, the everyday train travel is not all that great in Canada, though the long distance routes are up there with the best in the world. Consider the scenic trains, of which the Rocky Mountaineer that runs from Vancouver to Jasper, Banff, Calgary and other destinations, is a spectacular example. The VIA Rail network in Eastern Canada is very good, with excellent services between Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City, and onwards towards the Atlantic Canada provinces. Moreover, the Canadian is an remarkable accomplishment, allowing its passengers to traverse the entire country from east to west and vice versa.
The ancestors of the aboriginal people of North America were the first to enter the continent, some 25,000 years ago, crossing the land bridge that linked Eurasia and modern day Alaska. These first people were nomadic hunter-gatherers who spread south, following bison and mammoth, eventually reaching Cape Horn. Various settlements were left along the way, though remains of ancient graves and chipped-rock spearheads are few.
Several millennia later, in 3000BC, the first group of Inuit migrants arrived, crossing the Bering Strait by boat or foot, depending on ice cover. They spread out across the northern, icy fringes North America as far as Greenland, displacing aboriginal groups as they went. Some two thousand years later a second group of Inuit migrants arrived, subsequently wiping out their predecessors. This second group, known as the Thule culture, are the direct descendants of today's Inuit.
Some 300,000 people were living in Canada when the Europeans first arrived. They were split into three groups: the Inuit in the north; below them stretching from Labrador to northern British Columbia were the tribes of the northern forests, including Tahltan and Naskapi groups; and the more culturally and agriculturally sophisticated Iroquois-speakers and Ojibwa spread along the south, along the modern day boundary with the US.
The first European site in North America is on Newfoundland. The L'Anse aux Meadows archaeological site dates back to the year 1000 and marks the site of a temporary Norse settlement. The Sagas recount that it was settled briefly by Norse explorers from Greenland but was soon disbanded after unfriendly encounters with the locals.
The big name, Christopher Columbus, discovered the Americas nearly three centuries later in 1492, sparking off a wave of excited explorations by ambitious 15th century explorers. One of these new breed was John Cabot who, in 1497, spotted Cape Breton, Newfoundland and huge shoals of cod off the Grand Banks, prompting European fishing fleets to visit these fish rich waters.
The French were also making a move towards the New World and in 1535, Jacques Cartier sailed up the St Lawrence River, hoping to end up in Asia. Instead he stumbled into a number of Iroquois settlements and had friendly interactions with them, until he stole one of their chiefs and took him back to Paris. Despite this ill-mannered incident, the French were soon trading fur with the locals, arousing the attention of the French King who sent Samuel de Champlain to chart further up the St Lawrence. In 1608, Champlain founded Québec City at the heart of New France.
Setbacks occurred, and by the beginning of the 18th century there were only 18,000 people living in New France, despite relative agricultural wealth. Trading had led to the tragic extermination of the Huron people as tribes battled among each other for trading rights with these new, musket-rich Europeans.
Meanwhile the British dominated land north and south of New France and in 1713 took control of Nova Scotia, effectively trapping the French colony. The Seven Year War began in 1756 and was won by the British, in part thanks to their superior navy, which powered up the St Lawrence River and captured Quebec City and Montreal in quick succession. The French North American Empire was effectively lost.
Britain's new position brought problems, not least what to do with the so-called Canadiens, French-speaking locals born in New France. The government's initial attempt to swamp the region with English-speaking Protestants failed, so the region's governor Guy Carleton pandered to them, making concessions in religion, language and local politics under the 1774 Quebec Act, in order to win their support. By the time the American War of Independence swung around, the Canadiens didn't support the British Crown but crucially, they didn't support the United States either.
The War of Independence helped boost the population of British North America, which at that time was largely made up of Quebec and modern day Ontario, as United Empire Loyalists swarmed in from the separatist United States. The colony was promptly split into Upper and Lower Canada, with both provinces governed by the British. Lower Canada retained French civil laws.
The drawing of the US-Canada border along the 49th parallel followed the War of 1812 and by 1850, over 800,000 migrants had arrived in British North America from the US and Britain. Massive demand for space meant that native people lost large swathes of their land.
A growing country was held back by poor, nepotistic colonial governance, which led to resentment towards the British. Despite an act of union between Upper and Lower in 1840, the government stayed weak, especially with the French-speaking majority in Quebec, who witnessed a growing parliamentary contempt of their language and culture. The British government's inability to control the opposing French and English-speaking factions created increasing frustration. And so, in 1864, representatives from Nova Scotia, Price Edward Island, Ontario, New Brunswick and Quebec met to discuss the birth of a new nation. On 01 July 1867 parliament passed the British North America Act and the self-governing state of Canada was born.
From here, the western boundaries of former-British North America were enfolded into the Canadian dominion. First came the Northwest Territories, formerly Rupert's Land and then British Columbia, which joined the dominion in exchange for the new Canadian government assuming the region's debt. The Canadian Pacific Railway, the brainchild of Prime Minister John A Macdonald, further integrated the wild-western regions to the east. It was built despite lack of investment and extraordinary geographical obstructions - and it remains one of Canada's finest engineering achievements.
Unified Canada grew rapidly at the turn of the 20th century. The country's huge wealth of natural resources - including gold in the Yukon - prompted substantial industrialisation and made the country rich. Mass migration followed, with some 4.5 million people arriving from the US and Eastern Europe between 1885 and 1914.
The First World War was a political turning point. As a member of the British Empire, Canada automatically sent 300,000 men to the frontline, and when huge numbers of troops returned in coffins, resentment against the Empire, especially among French Canadians, was at a high. Tensions escalated, thousands of Quebecois took to the streets, and by 1918, national sentiment was largely anti-Empire. In 1931, the under pressure British Parliament formalised the independence of Canada and other Commonwealth nations although oddly, the British retained the right to pass amendments in Canada's constitution until the 1982 Canada Act.
More economic growth followed WWII and Newfoundland officially joined Canada in 1949. The ultra-conservative Union Nationale party kept a grip on Quebec for a quarter of a century, minimising the positive impact of economic growth until the region's Quiet Revolution in the late 60s.
Today Canada is a member of the G8 and considered a liberal and tolerant society - it was the fourth country to legalise same-sex marriage in 2005, the first country to do so outside of Europe.
The Canadian dollar ($) is the official currency. Coins come in denominations 1¢, 5¢, 10¢, 25¢, 50¢, $1 and $2; notes in denominations of $5, $10, $20, $50, $100.
$1 coins are often referred to as a 'loonie', due to the common loon, a common Canadian bird, pictured on the reverse side. $2 coins have subsequently been nicknamed 'toonie'.
ATMs are available at all times of the day throughout the country. There is likely to be a small charge for foreign transactions, but exchange rates at ATMs are generally as good as you'll find anywhere else. Be sure to notify your bank of your travels to avoid them from blocking your card when an international transaction is made. Credit and bank cards are accepted at most shops, hotels, bars and restaurants, but it's worth carrying some cash with you for tipping purposes.
Tipping is expected across the country and should be considered as an additional cost when budgeting for your trip. When dinning, 15% is the standard amount added to the bill - 10% is acceptable in local diners but expect to tip up to 20% in high-class restaurants. Unlike the UK, tipping is also expected when buying drinks from a bar and bartenders generally expect $1 per drink.
Where to eat
Canadians love to eat out - and the variety and number of places to dine at is impressive. Perhaps give the generic all-American chains that line the malls and main streets a miss, and opt instead for neighbourhood joints, one of the many bars, bistros, cafés or diners with a local feel and a better atmosphere - and often better food. The amount of restaurants in the bigger cities is staggering, serving everything from Chinese to Portuguese food, and Quebec in particular has several fine French restaurants; but even in the countryside, there are a growing number of family-run cafés and restaurants. Service is excellent, with staff very reliant on tips, which are standard practice here.
The great landscapes of Canada stretch from vast lakes to Arctic tundra, thick forest to the desert-like plains that stretch to the US border in British Columbia. Such varied topography supports abundant wildlife, from herds of musk ox to spawning salmon, much of which can be seen relatively easily on tours.
Big mammals are Canada's trump card. Caribou, elk, moose, lynx, wolverine, gray wolf, beaver, lemming, bobcat, arctic hare, cougar, musk ox, skunk and bobcats are some of the big names that can be spotted in the country's many parks and backwaters. Canada also has bears in abundance, including black, Kermode, grizzlies and polar bears - some 150 of these majestic animals collect around the Hudson Bay settlement of Churchill in the spring. Both species of American bison, plains and wood, are also prevalent, with a population of some 5000 of the latter found in Wood Buffalo National Park, the country's largest national park.
Canada is home to a large variety of snakes, most of which are harmless; rattlesnakes, pit vipers and copperheads being the exception to the rule. It's also home to a variety of land and pond turtles, including common snapping and the unfortunate-looking spiny softshell. Canada also acts as a pontoon for five species of sea turtle including the loggerhead, green, leatherback, Ken's ridley and olive ridley, most of which, sadly, are critically endangered.
It's estimated that there are over 630 bird species in Canada, over 400 of which are resident in Ontario. Of these, the migrating Canada goose is perhaps the best known.
Other distinctive species are the Atlantic puffin, snow geese, black-capped chickadee, Steller's jay, evening grosbeak, American goldfinch, red crossbill, turkey vulture, golden eagle, great horned owl and snowy owl, which is the official bird of Quebec.
Of Canada's three coasts - Pacific, Atlantic, Arctic - the Pacific is the most abundant with sea life, supported by warm currents and incredible number of salmon. Orcas (or, aptly, killer whales) circle Vancouver Island in great numbers and large pods can be spotted having a good old time chasing salmon, seals and other meals. Other mammals include grey whales, humpbacks and fur seals and sea lions. The Artic and Atlantic coast still boast some intriguing species including beluga whales and harp seals.